Johnson Providing Big Returns

FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas running back Dennis Johnson had a message for his offensive teammates in practice last week.

He knew they were waiting all summer for the season opener. And he knew they were eager to unveil the high-powered attack led by new quarterback Ryan Mallett. But Johnson wanted them to know they were going to have to wait if he stepped on the field to return the opening kickoff.

"I told the whole offense before we came out the whole week, if I get on the field first you might as well stay on the bench because I'm going to return it," Johnson said. "I told the kickoff return team before we got out there, ‘Let's go. We're going to return this.' We went out there and did it."

Johnson's 91-yard kickoff return proved to be a prophetic and emphatic start to the 48-10 win against Missouri State.

The sophomore — who got big blocks from teammates like Van Stumon on the return — burst through a hole and raced into the end zone as the offense watched from the sideline.

"What are you not going to let the offense get in the game?" guard Mitch Petrus said when asked for his reaction to Johnson's big return. "You don't want us to get in there?

"That's fine with me because, boy, it really gets the momentum going for you. Especially when you're at home."

It was the second kickoff return for a touchdown in Johnson's career. He also had the 96-yarder against Tulsa in 2008, which proved to be the final score in Arkansas' 30-23 victory.

But if the confident Johnson — who was named co-special teams player of the week by the Southeastern Conference — has his way, he'll be visiting the end zone much more.

"I'm trying to return one every game," Johnson said. "Everybody knows we're trying to get at least one a game. Maybe two. But we're trying to get one a game."

At the very least, Johnson has a chance to rewrite Arkansas' record books for kickoff returns if his current pace continues.

For now, he is tied for fifth in school history in kickoff returns (43), sits fourth in kick return yards (1,020) and seventh in all-purpose return yards. His career average for kickoff returns (23.7) also ranks sixth in school history.

Now consider this: The sophomore has done it in just 12 games, dating back to the second week of the 2008 season.

Arkansas special teams coordinator John L. Smith said Johnson has been a valuable return man because of his speed and fearlessness. His confidence helps, too, and it has spread to other players on Arkansas' kick return team.

"That excitement and that postiveness vibrates to the rest of the group and then they all start believing," Smith said.

"It's like piranhas. We all start feeding."

Johnson set the single-season record in returns (41) and return yards (905) last season. But the large number of opportunities came because the defense was scored on often.

So Johnson is confident he won't get as many returns this season because of the defense's improvement. But he believes his experience will help him take advantage of every chance.

"I know the blocking scheme better this year," Johnson said. "I'm studying how to return. I'm studying their kickoff team.

"So I'm getting to know the schemes better and how the blocking is going to be set up."

Johnson said it helped him in the opener. Arkansas now has at least one kickoff return for a touchdown in each of the past five seasons. Former Arkansas running back Felix Jones had kickoff returns for touchdowns in 2005, 2006, and 2007.

But Johnson doesn't want to settle for just one in 2009.

"I want to be known as the best in the SEC, one of the best at least," Johnson said. "And one of the best in the country."

Climbing the Charts

Running back Dennis Johnson has only returned kickoffs in 12 games. But it hasn't kept the sophomore from becoming one of the most productive return men in school history. Here is a look at the career leader and where Johnson ranks:

Category Leader (Statistics) Johnson's Stats (Rank)

Kick Returns Felix Jones (62) 43 (Tied 5th)

Kick Return Yards Felix Jones (1,749) 1,020 (4th)

Kick Return Average Felix Jones (28.2) 23.7 (6th)

Total Return Yards DeCori Birmingham (1,867) 1,020 (Tied-7th)

Dennis Johnson

Height: 5-foot-9.

Weight: 205 pounds

Position: tailback/kick returner

Class: Sophomore

Hometown: Texarkana

Notable: Named to the SEC Coaches' all-freshman team last season ... set the UA single-season record for returns (41) and return yards (905).

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